One welcome surprise of the Arab Spring is how young protesters have not bought into a big lie. From Libya to Syria, they have obviously rejected a claim by crumbling dictators that the West is behind the uprisings.
It’s an old narrative – that Arabs are victims of foreign hands, still being humiliated by big non-Muslim powers as in the 19th and 20th century. While much of that history is true, today’s Arabs simply want to focus on gaining rights, freedom, and dignity.
Their willingness to ignore historic grievances may represent a global shift away from the common misuse of history by leaders for political or even violent ends. The old “Muslim rage” that once drove Arabs to support dictators or groups like Al Qaeda can’t compete with the lure of democracy and prosperity.
Another reason may be that the world has generally moved away from giant wars and other wholesale abuses that left deep emotional scars on entire peoples, from Jews to Armenians to Chinese. More countries are democratic, eager to trade not fight. Modern weapons give pause to their easy use. More countries follow international norms.
To be sure, such a shift isn’t easy. Palestinians and Israelis especially suffer from a mutual narrative of historic victimhood.
In South Korea, leaders are still struggling over how to let go of the sordid legacy of Japan’s 35-year occupation. Last month, President Lee Myung-bak asked Japan to resolve the grievances of elderly Korean women who were forced to work as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Japan contends it officially settled up with South Korea on its war past in 1965. Lee had to admit that “the past should not be a stumbling block on the way to the future.”
But in Poland, another country with a long history of being a victim, leaders have shown an amazing ability to seek understanding and avoid revenge.
At a 2010 ceremony marking the Russian massacre of thousands of Polish officers in 1940, the Polish leader asked that the two countries “transform violence and lies into reconciliation.” Prime Minister Vladimir Putin responded by saying “there can be no justification for these crimes” under Stalin’s totalitarian regime. “We must move toward each other,” he said.
That moment was similar to the postwar reconciliation between France and Germany, reflected in their leaders holding hands in 1984. Or an apology by Tony Blair for Britain’s historic mistreatment of the Irish.
In recent years, China’s leaders have unleashed protests against Japan, France, and others by citing 19th- and early 20th-century abuse of their country, such as the opium war of 1839-42. Such appeals help stoke nationalism for the sake of keeping the Communist Party in power. But even party leaders have had to rein in such rhetoric of grievances in order to prevent such protests from turning on them.
How can countries reconcile? Often they need only try to write a common history decades later after a war. France and Germany did. South Korea and Japan tried but failed – although that is far better than North Korea citing Japan’s past abuses to justify military threats.
Some countries try to legislate history. Last month, French lawmakers made it a crime to deny the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide. Truth, it seems, must be imposed by force in France.
A victim mentality may be useful for a while in the pursuit of justice and truth, but at some point it can also be misused. Serbia’s late leader, Slobodan Milosevic, turned the Balkans into killing fields in the 1990s by stoking old Serb resentments to right ancient wrongs meted out by Muslims and others.
The late Osama bin Laden tried to rally Muslims based on the “humiliation and disgrace” of Islam by the West for “more than 880 years.” His cause is on the ropes, not just because of his killing last year but because of the Arab Spring’s message that some bygones should be bygones. Violence can’t be justified by the distant past.
More people today are better educated and, with the Internet, more aware of other countries. They exhibit more empathy and fairness toward others, even old enemies.
That has been on display among the Arab youth, who welcome Western support – even its fighter jets – to their cause. They might as well be singing auld lang syne.